MU professor offers input about work being done by Chinese researchers during visit to South China Botanical Garden
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – A Marshall University ecologist has returned from China where he worked with a group of Chinese scientists who are studying, among other things, the effects of nitrogen on plant life.
Dr. Frank S. Gilliam, professor of biological sciences, was invited to visit the South China Botanical Garden (SCBG) in Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city. The invitation came after Chinese researchers who had read several of his scientific publications contacted him and asked for his input about research they are doing on the effects of excessive nitrogen on plant life.
Gilliam was able to study the pristine 400-year-old Dinghushan Forest, a rare tract which, under the supervision of Buddhist monks, has been protected from any kind of agriculture, forestry or other human activity.
“It’s the finest example of undisturbed tropical forest you can find. The site is so old, anything that is done there will be new. We don’t have anything like it in the United States,” Gilliam said.
The extensive botanical garden, one of the largest of its type in the world, consists of a series of smaller gardens, each with its own ecological stamp. Among others, there is an Australian garden with native plants including towering Eucalyptus trees, a magnolia garden where imported tulip trees from the U.S. have bred with native Chinese trees to form hybrids, and a tract that features several acres of camellias. In the center, there is a glassed-in conservatory where scientists simulate a series of diverse environments including arctic, arid dessert and tropical rainforest.
A paper Gilliam wrote last year examined the effect of nitrogen-laced rainfall, snow or fog on plant growth and diversity. He likens the effect to home gardeners over-fertilizing their gardens.
“Excess nitrogen in rainfall is basically pollution,” Gilliam explains. “It can come from a variety of things, for example, auto exhaust or industrial activity. Nitrogen gets into the atmosphere and falls to the earth as rain with the result that it over-fertilizes the plants. This nitrogen saturation creates problems because too much nitrogen causes imbalances in plants. There is less diversity and species are disappearing, not because they’re being dug up or destroyed but because they can’t handle the extra nitrogen.”
Actually, both West Virginia and Marshall University have a connection to China’s research. Marshall researchers, including Gilliam, have been studying a forest in Tucker County for more than 20 years. The nearly 90-acre tract has been set aside so that the effect of nitrogen on a forested ecosystem can be studied on a large scale. With funding through the National Science Foundation and under the auspices of the National Forest Service, it has been a valuable outdoor laboratory, according to Gilliam.
“We’re adding nitrogen to an entire watershed with a helicopter three times a year,” he said. “We want to know how the nitrogen moves through the soil and how plants respond to it. The Chinese are studying the same thing only on a much smaller scale. They spray small plots. It’s a good simulation; we’re just doing it on a larger scale. And now the Chinese team is familiar with West Virginia.”
As part of his trip, Gilliam presented a research seminar and he is collaborating with his Chinese counterparts on a research paper to be published in a major journal. He and his hosts had academic exchanges and discussed how to further strengthen international collaboration between China and the U.S.
Gilliam said he received a warm welcome in Guangzhou. “The Chinese were wonderfully warm and I made fast friendships even in such a short period of time,” he said. “It was difficult to say goodbye. Unlike Beijing and Shanghai, it is not an international city. It’s a city of 10 million people but there are not many foreigners to be seen. As a tall, balding West Virginian I definitely stood out in a crowd!”
For more information, call Gilliam at (304) 696-3636.